The Great Passage is a Japanese book first published in 2011 and translated in English in 2017 by Juliet Winters Carpenter. The dictionary department of Gembu Books is undertaking a new mammoth dictionary project, The Great Passage—but the one capable full-time employee, Kohei Araki (whose interest in words was piqued at a young age) is about to retire (and thus can come in only part time), and the only other employee, Nishioka is not a really committed lexicographer. But on Nishioka’s recommendation, Araki poaches from another department, a young man, Mitsuya Majime who has a similar interest, even though he doesn’t initially seem confident of his abilities. Together, Araki and Majime, along with Professor Matsumoto, their editor, begin on a journey to compile their ambitious project—with them is their assistant Mrs Sasaki, and along the way others including a new employee, Midori Kashibe, and endless students and collaborators. The dictionary takes a long time coming—over a decade—in which time the department finds itself having to devote attention away from it and to other projects like revising previous dictionaries and putting together an encyclopaedia on a popular anime series. Alongside we also follow the lives of the characters—the people associated with the department—their lives, interests, and romances—and also how being associated with dictionaries, and words specifically changes their view of things.
This was a rather interesting read for me—the opening, learning Araki’s story and how he became interested in words reminded me very much of another Japanese title I read recently, The Forest of Wool and Steel (review here). The whole process of dictionary making and the level of effort, and indeed time it takes was something that really came across to me in this book—also the nuances of the language itself (This is something I’d noticed before in a travel programme I watch where the hosts are also at times confused with the various characters in place names and not clear as to the exact meaning of the word.) Collecting definitions of words from different contributors, making certain they meet standards, and even that the illustrations are not misrepresenting the word they are associated with, besides going through several proofs makes the task a labour of love indeed. From the nature and thickness of the paper to of course each word included (or left out), every aspect consumes time and attention.
I also enjoyed following the personal stories of the different characters as well—Nishioka brings in a lot of humour (though he isn’t the only source) and improves as the story goes on (initially he was a little obnoxious I guess), and sees the project through the way he can, besides supporting Majime and others (in a fun way). Majime finds love (he and his wife suit each other’s temperaments rather well—and both are somewhat eccentric), as does Miss Kishibe. Professor Matsumoto too is eccentric in his own way, obsessed with words, and wanting to use every opportunity to truly understand the meaning of words—his idea is that one can define it best if one experiences it. Since the journey is a long one, one witnesses life’s ups and downs too—the happy moments and sad. The story doesn’t move continuously in time–there are jumps in two or three places.
I also loved how the actual interactions with words, learning new meanings, or just understanding what words meant specifically impacted the characters’ lives as well—giving expression to their vision or simply helping them understand or interpret things in a specific way. Even Nishioka who is mechanical in his approach to his work compared to others begins to feel for the project, and Midori Kishibe who previous worked in the fashion magazine department and becomes associated with it begins to understand what dictionary-making is all about and becomes committed to the task. The end is bittersweet and also realistic.
I enjoyed this one a lot (and yes, Majime’s endless collection of books seemed like a place I’ll find myself at some point—and I loved that there were two cats in the story too!)
Have you read this one before? How did you find it? Looking forward to your thoughts!
Cover image: Goodreads
I have featured this book in a Shelf Control post previously (here)